This is a story about home.
I was born on an army base, one week late and two days into Libra season, milky-white with a full head of thick, black curls. My grandma would draw two big moles on my face with kajal before I was taken out of the house, to ward off the evil eye.
As a child I was adored.
I was a fussy eater. My grandparents would pick the meat off its bones, soak my rice in sodhi and roll every mouthful into little balls before hand-feeding me every meal.
I turned brown in the sun, and childhood drifted lazily by in a haze of sugar donuts, Cadbury’s milk chocolate, and monsoon rains followed by smoggy, humid evenings. Home held me lovingly in her arms, sang me to sleep with the sounds of lorry drivers rumbling down the road and the man in the tall tower calling people to prayer every day at sunset.
And then my parents won the golden ticket, quite literally. We were moving to the Goldfields.
My dad had to stay behind with my brothers while he looked for a job, so my mum and I boarded the 5-hour flight from Malaysia to Perth alone, hand in hand. Our first night in Perth was so cold, the coldest I had ever felt. My lips had blistered from the flight and I couldn’t stop picking at them. We spent the night in a motel. There was nothing in the fridge except a small carton of milk so we shared it between the two of us. I felt very small and very cold and very sleepy. This new home was unfamiliar, and the mattress was lumpy and the sheets were scratchy.
I wrote my brothers letters on kangaroo-print stationary and a teacher at school would let me use her computer before class started to email my dad. My first day there, I emailed him: “the sun is shining but it is so cold. I don’t understand anything about this country”. I felt very far away from home, with its heavy rains and potholed roads and the banana trees in my grandfather’s backyard.
As I got older, my body began to feel unwelcoming. I was shorter than the other girls, my hips were wider, nose was bigger, and the hair on my arms and legs was much darker. I felt like I was on the outside looking in. I was a foreigner to everyone else and suddenly to myself. I didn’t know where home was anymore, but it wasn’t in this small town with all the people who knew where they belonged. I was an astronaut, floating further and further away from my own body.
So, I did what all 18-year-olds do: I left for the city. With its glimmering lights and busy roads, I decided that that would be home. I shaved my legs, wore short skirts and red lipstick, stayed out dancing all night and batted my eyelashes at tall, lanky boys. Home was now a haze of bodies – arms always reaching out to something, someone – but always coming up empty. Home was also new friends, a shoulder for my head, a hand to hold, a bottle of wine to be shared down by the river.
Sometimes home is feeling: you are not alone in this.
But still, at night my room seemed too big and too small at the same time. I spent weeks staring at the ceiling, trying to float out of my own body. Trying to be anywhere but here, anyone except me. I call my parents one night, crying for a reason I can’t pinpoint but they seem to understand. From 700 kilometers away, my dad’s voice bouncing across the hundreds of cell towers between him and I, saying: “I’m on my way.” And he drives through the night and he’s there in the morning. Sometimes, home has to come to you.
And then one day, I meet a boy.
Suddenly, home is everywhere that I am as long as I’m with him–the dingy room in his sharehouse, the weathered front seat of his beat-up Mercedes handed down from his dad, our Air B’n’B in Tokyo where he buys me a rose and I try to keep in alive for the week that we’re there by watering it in an empty corona bottle. Home smelled like cherry blossoms and the earth after rain, home was always bathed in a rosy sunset glow. Everything seemed to have a place. Until it didn’t. Home began to become a stream of angry words, slammed doors. There were secrets in the walls we couldn’t get rid of, the foundations were unstable. One day you wake up and home is a house on fire. And all you can do is leave.
I felt exiled, an immigrant again for the first time. I was an astronaut, back in outer space watching the world go on without me. I was drifting outside my own body and it felt like nothing could pull me back home. It felt like nowhere was home.
So, I went back to the start. One afternoon in January, I’m back in Malaysia with my mum. We stay with my grandma at her new apartment. When I was younger, she lived in a huge corner house and we spent Christmases there with all our cousins, playing badminton and sprawling out across every available room for afternoon naps. Once everyone grew up and got older, she sold it in favor of a smaller unit in a condominium block–one she had always dreamed off. The walls were decked with floral wallpaper and hundreds of photos of the family. From the ceiling, she had managed to hang not one, not two, but THREE chandeliers. The afternoon we arrived, she greeted me with: “Come, come, I made your favorite crab curry.” We sit on her new leather sofa, all three of us in a row. I pierce the soft shell of the crab with my long acrylic nail, knowing the turmeric would stain them yellow. Keeping Up with the Kardashians comes on the TV, and through a mouthful of rice, my grandma mumbles: “That Khloe is so naughty.”
It is hard to remember home until you are home.
Like a song you don’t realise you know all the words to until it comes on the radio.
Like a pixelated horizon of a video game.
Sometimes home looks completely different, but feels exactly the same. Outside, in the blazing afternoon sun, the man in the tall tower begins to call people to prayer. My little astronaut begins to fall slowly back down to earth.
Sometimes, home is where you least expect – the first time, you go on a holiday by yourself and float alone in the ocean at a beach in Barcelona, a forest with your brothers in Amsterdam as it begins to rain and the colours look straight out of a movie, the kitchen bench on a Saturday morning with your parents as you all sip tea in silence and tag each other in dog videos. Home is a feeling: you have always been loved, you have always belonged here.
And home is always this body – your body, that has carried you across oceans and deserts – this ever-expanding universe that softly rocks you to sleep each night, even when you feel far, far away from it.